Experiencing the Culture of Rwanda

A human rights course combines online learning and first-hand experience as they learn about the culture of Rwanda by traveling to the country

ST. LOUIS, July 1, 2013 – Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” but for many people, the beautiful landscape is not the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the country. 

Melissa George, an international human rights major at Webster University, is one of seven students who traveled to Rwanda as part of the Human Rights Area Studies course offered at Webster University. 

“I am sad to say that I only knew Rwanda for genocide before this class,” said George. “No country should be known for genocide, there is always so much more to the people and the culture.” 

Educating students about the culture and people of Rwanda are goals of the course. Elizabeth Sausele, an adjunct faculty member at Webster University, did her dissertation research in Rwanda and is committed to giving students experiences in the developing world.

“It is my deep conviction that in order to engage in effective human rights intervention and activism, it is critical for people to understand culture,” said Sausele. “To not understand culture and not work within different cultures is dangerous and you end up running the risk of re-traumatizing populations that have already suffered human rights abuse.”

Rwandan schoolThis is the second year that the course has been offered at Webster University. It combines online learning with a trip to Rwanda. For eight weeks, students study the history and culture of Rwanda, learning about pre-colonial history, genocide and also the current political climate of the country. This online course is a pre-requisite to the two-week travel portion. The course is co-taught by Sausele and Lindsey Kingston. Webster alumnus and Rwandan national John Munyaguramba served as a translator during the trip.

“The online class helped us prepare for the culture shock,” said George. “We all had vast knowledge about the genocide and learned about the current political situation in Rwanda but there's no way you can prepare for the emotional aspect of the trip.”

The two-week trip focused on some of the violence in Rwanda's history by visiting the National Genocide Memorial in Kilgari and the Nyamata and Ntarma churches, which have been turned into memorials for the genocide victims. Rather than focusing only on this aspect of Rwanda's history, the trip also incorporated cultural experiences so the students could experience the art and music of the country. A trip to the National Museum introduced the students to Intore dancing, the traditional dance of Rwanda.

“The dancers wore traditional dress and the warriors wore long straw headdresses that flowed from their heads,” said George.Intore Dancing “There was so much energy and the music was wonderful. At one point there was a drum line and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. At the end we were able to dance with them and the music flowed through us.”

Visiting schools and markets helped them to learn more about the day-to-day life of people in Rwanda. On the first day of the trip they visited a traditional market where hundreds of vendors sold food, fabrics and crafts. They visited a school for the perpetrators and victims of genocide, a small village where they were able to learn how to weave colorful baskets and a coffee plantation to learn how premium coffee is grown and processed.

“Coffee is a major export of Rwanda so we spent an afternoon at a coffee farm and coffee washing station,” said George. “We were able to see how positively the coffee trade affected the village. Being there was important because it helped us see how much work goes into producing coffee and taught me how people should never complain how much a cup of coffee costs.”

Sausele said it's these sorts of experiences that help students become global citizens.

Coffee Farm“These experiences are crucial for understanding different cultures in our age of globalization,” said Sausele. “These opportunities shape world view and how we relate to those who have different values and ways of doing things.”

George agreed that the class helped her feel a sense of global citizenship and served as a reminder to stay open to new experiences.

“This trip was life changing for me. I look at things so differently now. I have so much while some people have so little and yet in many ways they live better than I do. This trip motivated me to do good in this world.”

To learn more about this course, please visit the Study Abroad section of the website to learn more about Webster's short-term study abroad programs.

To learn more about Webster's Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies, please visit their website.

All photos were taken by Elizabeth Sausele and are used with her permission.